Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/18/17

A Northwoods Almanac for August 18, 31, 2017  by John Bates

            In a December, 1942 essay, Aldo Leopold advocated for the conservation of the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which was slated to be cut. He wrote, “Sometime in 1943 or 1944 an axe will bite into the snowy sapwood of a giant maple. On the other side of the same tree a crosscut saw will talk softly, spewing sweet sawdust into the snow with each repetitious syllable. Then the giant will lean, groan, and crash to earth, the last merchantable tree of the last merchantable forty of the last virgin hardwood forest of any size in the Lake States. With this tree will fall the end of an epoch . . .
“There will be an end of cathedral aisles to echo the hermit thrush, or to awe the intruder. There will be an end of hardwood wilderness large enough for a few day’s skiing or hiking without crossing a road. The forest primeval, in this region, will henceforward be a figure of speech.
“There will be an end of the pious hope that America has learned from her mistakes in private forest exploitation. Each error, it appears, must continue to its bitter end; conservation must wait until there is little or nothing to conserve.”
Leopold’s efforts, along with many others, led to the establishment of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in 1945. Now 60,000 acres in size, with 35,000 acres of old-growth forest, the “Porkies” represent the largest block of old-growth hardwood-hemlock forest left in North America.
Because of the vision and conservation ethic of people over 70 years ago, Mary and I were able last weekend to lead a group from the North Lakeland Discovery Center on a 9.5-mile hike through continuous old-growth. We followed the Little Carp River for 7 miles to its mouth at Lake Superior, then the Pinkerton Trail 2.5 miles back to South Boundary Road where we had parked.
Leopold wrote, “When we abolish the last sample of the Great Uncut, we are, in a sense, burning books. I am convinced that most Americans of the new generation have no idea what a decent forest looks like. The only way is to show them.”
Show them we did, though our “showing” was little more than simply walking along with people who were willing to see. We did discuss the forest ecology of old-growth, keeping the knowledge derived from the “books” Leopold spoke of alive. But the beauty is what we came for, and we couldn’t have asked for more.
(I'm unable to find an online version of Leopold's "The Last Stand," but I have it photocopied. Please send me an email - - and I'll email the pdf.)

photo by Licia Johnson

Bald Mountain – UPLC
            The day after our hike in the Porkies, Mary and I hiked to the top of Bald Mountain in the U.P. with members of the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy (UPLC), and with landowners Mark and Chris Troudt. The rock bald on top of Bald Mountain stands at nearly 1300 feet, about 700 feet above Lake Superior which is only two miles to the north. Thus, it affords panoramic views in all directions of the rest of the Huron Mountains and the lands lower in elevation. We had some heart-pumping rocky terrain to climb, and a nearly impossible road to drive in on, but it was worth the effort – spectacular!

            The Troudt’s are working to place a conservation easement on their property with the UPLC, which now protects nearly 6,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula, with 10 dedicated preserves, 24 experimental working forest reserves, and 19 conservation easements with private land owners and partnering organizations.

            In northern Wisconsin, the Northwoods Land Trust in Eagle River has conserved over 11,000 acres of land, 26 miles of lakefront, and 33 miles of riverfront. A conservation easement is a voluntary land protection agreement made with a land trust to provide long-term stewardship of the protected land so the resource values are preserved in accordance with the landowner’s wishes.
I know of no better vehicle by which landowners can see their vision for their land legally maintained for future generations while still keeping it in private ownership. Property rights are a hot topic in the Northwoods, and I can envision no better right to protect than what you’ve worked so hard to create, maintain, and preserve.

UPLC group on Bald Mountain

Migration Is On!
            If you’re wondering why the woods are so quiet these days, songbird migration has already begun. Many of our insect-eating, neotropical migrants are already winging their way to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. We often speak of these birds as “our” birds. In reality, they are only here from mid-May to mid-August, and thus spend 9 months of the year, the majority of their life, far to our south. I suspect the folks in Central and South America would argue that these birds are really “their” birds. Neotropical migrants represent the majority of Northwoods nesting songbirds, so it’s truly a mass exodus.
            Of the few birds still singing, many are juvenile birds striving mightily to learn their songs before their departure south. Thus, incomplete songs are commonplace now, much like young children learning their language – they get most of it right, but there’s a lot of errors along the way.

Look for Nighthawks!
Common nighthawks should be winging southward by now, too, though their migration often lasts into early September. Their numbers can be huge – the largest flight ever recorded in the Upper Midwest was 43,690 nighthawks tallied on August 26, 1990, in Duluth, Minnesota! However, an occasional flock of 10 to 20 is far more common in our area.
Nighthawks aren’t hawks, nor are they most active at night, so the name leaves a lot to be desired. They do require a constant supply of flying insects, so to stay at least one step ahead of the first killing frost, they leave before what most of us consider the end of summer.
Look for nighthawks before dusk, flying over open fields, near airports, and along highways. They fly erratically as they try to capture insects on the wing, twisting and turning in a bat-like flight pattern. Their pointed, angular wings, each with a broad white line, help to quickly identify them.

photo by Bee Engstrom

Mushroom of the Week
            Mushroom maniacs are a gleeful bunch this time of year with mushrooms springing up everywhere in remarkable abundance. We’re still learning our mushroom species, which I suspect will be a life-long endeavor, but one of our favorites is the diminutive eyelash cup. Bright red or orange, these tiny mushrooms are ringed by stiff black hairs. Cora Mollen and Larry Weber write in their excellent book Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods, “Any fashion model would be lucky to have eyelashes as fine as this fungus.” Look for them alongside mosses on decaying wood. And don’t forget to take along a hand lens to see the eyelashes.

eyelash cup photo by Mary Burns

            Sarah Krembs in Manitowish Waters sent me two fine photos of white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars. The caterpillars come in a wild array of colors from yellow and black to lime green. The adults are what many people call “hummingbird moths” because they hover over flowers probing for nectar with a retractable proboscis that they roll out like a party favor. Look for them now in your garden flowers along with other species of sphinx moths. 

white-lined sphinx moth caterpillar photo by Sarah Krembs

            Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is also in flower now. This pure white flower is in the blueberry family and contains no chlorophyll, so it can’t photosynthesize. Instead, it parasitizes trees via their mycorrhizal fungi. It does this by extracting nutrients from the fungi which have colonized the tree’s fine roots. The fungi trade water and mineral nutrients with the tree for the tree’s photosynthetic carbohydrates and sugars. The Indian pipes then tap into the mycorrhizal fungi and steal some of those carbs and sugars, making for a nice living if you can get it.

Indian pipe photo by John Bates

Invasive Watch: Glossy Buckthorn
            Mary and I recently explored a trail along McNaughton Lake and found large patches of glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus/Rhamnus frangula), an invasive species that is a relative to common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). We were unfamiliar with it, having only seen common buckthorn in our area. The glossy smooth leaves stand out, as does the proliferation of dark purple fruits the size of blueberries. And whereas common buckthorn often has sharp thorns at the end of its twigs, glossy buckthorn is thornless.
In looking at a 2013 DNR range map, glossy buckthorn had not been reported in Vilas or Forest counties, but it is in Oneida County. If you don’t know this plant, take a moment to familiarize yourself, and then if you see it, tear it out as soon as possible.

Late Nesting Loons
            In his latest blog posting (, Walter Piper notes that on July 28 a pair of loons hatched two chicks on North Nokomis, a very late date for loon chicks! The presumption has always been that later hatching chicks would have less time to mature physically and behaviorally, and thus be less likely to return the following year.
            Dr. Piper has been capturing and banding loon chicks since 1991, and so he looked at his data set to determine if this presumption was true. And surprisingly, he found that chicks hatched in early to mid-June, the “normal” time, were no more likely to make it back than young hatched a month later (between July 6 to 19). He concludes, “In short, hatching date does not appear to strongly influence survival to adulthood.”
            It’s unclear how well the very late hatchers like the North Nookomis pair will do, because Dr. Piper has too few cases from which to draw a conclusion. But they will clearly have their work cut out for them.

Celestial Events
            While the solar eclipse is rightfully getting all the press, you might also look at dusk on 8/24 and 8/25 for Jupiter near the waxing crescent moon. And look at dusk on 8/29 and 8/30 for Saturn near the first quarter moon.

Quote for the Week
            “The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day.” Diane Ackerman

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 7/21/17

A Northwoods Almanac for July 21 – August 3, 2017  

            Last week, Mary and I paddled on a wilderness bog lake in the U.P. that was home to many hundreds of flowering orchids, and two species, grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosa) and rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides), comprised all of them (we were too late to see dragon’s-mouth orchid which had already gone-by).
rose polonia photo by Rod Sharka
            Orchids have evolved remarkable flower structures to attract insect pollinators. One petal is usually modified into a lip or a pouch (lady’s slipper orchids, for instance) to ensure pollination. The lip acts as a landing pad, the pouch as a non-lethal trap. Unlike most plants whose pollen grains are microscopic and windborne, orchids concentrate their pollen into wads of “pollinia” hidden or protected within the flower where the wind can’t carry it away. The pollen can only be picked up by specific insects that have co-evolved to fit the flower and be tricked into having the pollen stick to them, thus providing a hitchhiked ride to the next flower.
            The grass pink orchid utilizes an unusual pollination strategy, projecting its “lip” straight up at the top of the flower. 
grass pink orchid photo by John Bates
The lip appears to have many hair-like stamens on it which would ordinarily be the carriers of pollen and nectar, but it’s a ruse. The lip is actually hinged so that when an insect, usually a small bee, lands on the lip anticipating nectar, the weight of the bee causes the lip to fold down at the hinge. In turn, this causes the bee to fall backward onto a curved column beneath it where the pollinia awaits. 
From Charles Johnson's Bogs of the Northeast
The pollinia sticks to the insect’s back, the insect struggles to exit, and then flies to another flower hoping for better luck. But the same event happens again. The next flower receives the pollen from the previous flower, and in turn deposits its pollen onto the unwitting insect, all of whom must be slow learners. Take a look at the following video to see the process:

Paddling the Gile Flowage
On 7/17, Mary and I paddled part of the Gile Flowage in Iron County as part of an event sponsored by the Iron County Outdoor Recreation Enthusiasts. We were led by ace historian and conservationist Cathy Techtmann who works as the Environmental Outreach State Specialist for UW-Extension. The 3,384-acre Gile Flowage is fed by the West Fork of the Montreal River and six other tributary streams, and has 26 miles of mostly undeveloped shoreline. With large outcroppings of exposed bedrock characteristic of the Canadian shield, numerous islands, and protected bays, and surrounded by land mostly owned by Xcel Energy, the Gile has a wild feel. 
The flowage started filling in 1941 after Lake Superior District Power Company (merged into Northern States Power and now Xcel Energy) built a dam 30 feet high and 1100 feet long in 1940 on the West Fork of the Montreal River. The flowage serves as a water retention reservoir for downstream hydroelectric facilities at Saxon Falls and Superior Falls on the Montreal River.
I’m used to shallow waters in our area that are covered with aquatic vegetation, but a study of the Gile found 85% of the littoral area (near-shore shallows) contained no aquatic vegetation, a likely consequence of summer and winter drawdowns conducted by Xcel Energy. A typical annual water level regime includes a gradual summer drawdown beginning in early May and averaging 6 feet by October. Winter drawdown begins in early December and typically averages another 7 to 8 feet by early March.
The Gile holds the lamentable title of the first inland water body in Wisconsin to be invaded by the exotic spiny water flea, but so far its direct impact on the fishery is unclear. A native of Asia, this tiny crustacean was brought to Lake Superior in the ballast water of transoceanic ships and discovered in the Gile in 2003. Spiny water fleas eat the microscopic freshwater plankton needed by baby game fish.

This is big water and wind is often an issue here for paddlers, but if you’re looking to explore a little-known body of water quite different than most in our area, then try the Gile.

Deer Fly Patches
            I write about this nearly every year, but just for a reminder in case your memory is as leaky as mine, there is a simple way to defeat the incessant circling, and biting, of deer flies around one’s head. A company in LeRoy, MI, makes sticky, odorless deerfly patches that you place on the top of your hat. One side is mildly sticky like duct tape, and this is the side you place down on your hat. The other side, the upside, is very sticky, and deer flies, which almost always go for the highest point on a person, adhere to the tape instantly. Basically, you make yourself into a walking fly trap. When you’re done working or playing outside for the day, you just roll the tape off your hat into a ball and toss it, and the flies, into the waste can. Simple, no chemicals, and it works like a charm. Since no insect repellants work on deer flies, I’ve used the patches for years. Get them at many sports shops in our area or through the company’s website:
deer fly patch doing its job!
7/3: Judith Bloom reported seven pairs of loons of Lake Tomahawk, of which four hatched chicks and one was still on a nest.
7/12: Pyrollas, or shinleafs, are in flower in sandier soils in our area. In the wintergreen family, the waxy, typically white flowers always hang downward. Another member of the wintergreen family, pippsissewa, is also now in flower and likewise hangs downward.
7/13: An eagle chick fledged from the nest which we watch across the Manitowish River from our home. This is a bit early, but not as early as the eagle chick that fledged near Bob Kovar’s home in Manitowish Waters. It fledged on 7/2. Our early snow-off and ice-out this spring made early nesting an option, and many eagles appear to have taken advantage of it. Bob notes that “his” eagle is making a huge racket, which is typical of young eaglets who may beg for food well into the fall.
7/14: Silver maples below our house are turning red already due to stress from high water. The Manitowish River has been in flood since April, and all that water is proving to be too stressful for some trees.
7/15: On a hike at Powell Marsh WMA, we found Deptford pink wildflowers. These delicate, tall, exquisitely pink flowers were given the Latin genus name Dianthus: Dianthus from “dios” which means God, and “anthos” for flower – the divine flower. Unfortunately, Deptfor pink is an escapee – an introduced flower. However, it is not in the least bit invasive, so we still marvel when we see it.

Deptford pink
7/16: Sarah Krembs sent a photo of a black bear gorging on sunflower seeds from a tube feeder that she had just filled 20 minutes earlier. Kind of the bear to give the birds a brief breakfast first.

Frog Count
            Mary and I concluded our three frog counts for the year on July 13. What struck me this year was how comparatively early our nine frog species all began singing, courtesy I’m sure of our early ice-out which moved up the normal timing. The frogs that are left singing now in mid-July are green frogs and bullfrogs. The rest have bred, laid eggs, and are living their more terrestrial lifestyles now. Occasionally spring peepers still chime in, and may do so all the way into the fall, but their breeding period is long past.

Fireworks and Wildlife
July 4th is over - enough with the fireworks already! Why am I a curmudgeon about this? Here’s one reason from a writer on Little Arbor Vitae Lake:
“We are summertime residents of Arbor Vitae on Little Arb. We have a beautiful gray fox who comes nearly every evening on his or her nightly rounds . . . My grandfather always called gray foxes tree foxes, but I had never witnessed one actually climb a tree until this summer. On July 3, my daughter and I were sitting on our front porch. The fox came along and climbed a tree right across from where we were sitting. Our neighbors whose cottage you cannot see, as they are far enough away, decided that it would be fun to throw strings of firecrackers into the road. The first string of firecrackers exploded when the fox was about twelve feet up; the poor fox was so startled that it either jumped or fell out of the tree! Whap! Whap! Whap! Thump! It immediately started crying. I know they make a bark; it was not the bark; it was their other vocalization. You know, your first instinct is to jump up and make sure it was okay, especially because its distress was caused by another human, but I thought, "No, I have to just let things happen." The fox laid there and cried intermittently for about twenty minutes and then after that was silent. My daughter and I feared the worst. But we saw a fox two nights later and assume it to be the same fox. What a relief! It was astonishing enough to see the fox climb the tree, and it was quite distressing to see it fall out and cry. I am upset that this was a man-made problem. Anyway, that is my tale, and I am still excited to see this fox nearly every day. What a treat!”

Celestial Events
            The new moon occurs on 7/23. We’re down to 15 hours of daylight as of 7/26. This is our last warmest day of the summer with an average high of 79°. The peak Delta Aquarid meteor shower takes place in the early morning of 7/28 – look for an average of 15 to 20 meteors per hour. Look on the evening of 8/2 for Saturn about 3 degrees south of the waxing gibbous moon.

Thought for the Week
“And that is just the point . . . how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’” ~ Mary Oliver